Sweet and Sour Carp (China)
Traditionally, this dish requires carp caught from the Yellow River. You won’t have access to that in all likelihood, so use any good firm mild-flavored fish. Whole fish looks really cool, but if you’re not trying to impress, filets work just as well. Bass, trout, halibut, all would work fine. I used grouper, which worked fantastically well. The recipe is for the whole fish, but cooking a filet is easier.
Basically, score the skin of the fish if you’re using whole fish, coat it with cornstarch and then flash-fry it in a very hot wok. Then drain the oil, and make a simple lightly sweet and vinegary sauce in the wok and serve with rice and veggies. The sauce is not fluorescent orange.
The key is the black vinegar. I had never heard of this. It’s a rice-based vinegar, but aged so it becomes dark and umami-rich. It’s kinda like balsamic but more magical, and the way it mingles with the sugar, garlic, scallions and ginger… wow. You can use the sauce on chicken, tofu, pork… I bet it’s really good with strips of lean beef stir-fried. Try it. You will like it.
1 whole or filleted fish (1 1/2 lbs)
1 tsp salt
oil for frying (peanut or vegetable or similar)
2 green onions, chopped fine
2 tbsp fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup black vinegar
3 tbsp sugar (preferably turbinado)
2 tbsp soy sauce
1/4 chicken stock (unsalted)
1 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 3 tbsp cold water
Pat the fish dry with paper towels, then using a sharp knife, score the fish with deep curved angled cuts along both sides. Sprinkle the fish with salt, including within the cuts, and let it sit while you prepare the rest.
Heat a wok over medium heat until it starts to smoke, then add about 3 inches of oil (which is a lot more than you’d think). Get all your other ingredients next to the stove along with chopsticks and a slotted spoon and a serving platter, lined with paper towels. Be ready because you’ll be moving fast.
Hold the fish up by the tail so the slashes you made flap open. Coat the fish with cornstarch, including the slashes, then drop a little starch into the oil to determine that it’s hot enough (you’ll want it around 300 degrees F). If the starch bubbles and disappears, you’re ready. Lower the fish headfirst slowly into the oil, letting the slashes open up wide. Adjust the heat if necessary so that the oil is bubbling but the fish is not browning too fast. Ladle hot oil over the fish to ensure even frying. When one side is golden brown, use your spoon and chopsticks to gently turn the fish over. Keep the tail raw for as long as possible, to keep it from breaking off - it cooks very quickly at the end. Once the second side is golden brown, carefully use your spoon and chopsticks to lift it out of the oil and onto your serving platter.
Remove all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the wok - pour the excess into a large empty glass jar or two so you can safely dispose of it later. Heat the remaining oil over medium-high high, then add the green onions, ginger, and garlic. Stir them for about 10 seconds to release their aroma, then add the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce and stock. Bring to a boil and adjust seasoning if necessary - probably not needed, but just in case - then stir in the corn starch slurry. As soon as the sauce bubbles, pour it evenly over the fish and garnish with excess scallions (the green parts of the green onions).
Enjoy with rice and a veg - I sauteed broccolini in sesame oil, but you do you.
Adapted from All Under Heaven: Recipes from the 35 Cuisines of China by Carolyn Phillips
Photo by Drew Vahrenkamp